The last two weeks in July brought the Big One to the Golden sSate of California, thankfully not an earthquake, but the California State Fair held in Sacramento.
Packed with livestock from goats to cows to sheep, carnival rides, and the alluring scent of hot dogs, funnel cakes, and so much more from the variety of food vendors, the Sacramento-based fair has seen plenty of changes over its 169-year history, from locations to date changes, and yet the tradition and family fun continues.
Pre-pandemic attendance seemed to peak, but last year, and again this year, enthusiasm and attendance has rebounded.
650,000 attendees turned out last year after two years of pandemic closure; this year attendance, which has yet to be finalized, increased again. In fact, the fair's 17-day late July run ended with the largest four-day attendance records since prior to the pandemic, with 65,000 guests recorded attending on Saturday alone; a record.
The fair's CEO and CEO of Cal Expo, Tom Martinez, noted new investments in the musical performers and for children's programming as both contributing to the rise in guests. Also contributing was the fact that every one of California's 58 counties participated in the event this year.
Fair admission cost $16 for adults at the gate; for seniors, admission was priced at $12, and for kids ages 5 and up, $10. Advance purchase subtracted $2 from this pricing. Kids ages 4 and under were free.
Butler Amusements' unlimited ride wristbands were available for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays priced at $37, and on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, wristbands were priced at $42. Carnival tickets were $1 each, with fast passes available for $10-$15. Tuesdays were bargain days: guests were admitted free, and carnival rides were priced at just $2.
Summer reading reaped its own rewards: for every book a child read, they received two carnival rides for free and a monorail ticket after filling out a Read to Ride participation form.
A new rule was in place at the fair this year with guests under 18 only allowed into the fair with a parent or guardian 21 years old or above. The parent or guardian was also required to stay on the grounds when the kids were present and they were allowed to chaperone no more than five minors at a time.
Butler Amusements reported more than one million rides were taken during the fair's run, and 50,000 rides were taken on Cal Expo's monorail. Among their popular attractions were the Giant Wheel, Medusa, and Vertigo Swings. Helping fair goers to cool down in the summer heat, the carnival's White-Water ride was ridden more than 75,000 times.
Fair food received its due as well, with over 67,000 corn dogs consumed and 9,000 cooling Dole Whips devoured. A cooling beverage also proved popular: 19,662 wine slushies were quaffed in the Save Mart Wine Garden.
Martinez noted that the fair allows attendees to “enjoy the best of what California has to offer,” and that this year's success “demonstrates our commitment to offering an unforgettable experience.”
There were additional new contests and competitions from baking to arts and crafts within the exhibitions, and kid's programming such as The Lost World of Dragons and Wild Science.
Agriculture was not forgotten, however, with information about produce fests in various counties and a state-shaped garden exhibition featuring plastic representations of produce indicating where each was grown.
Vendors included jewelry, crafts, and artwork. Livestock drew crowds eager to see goats, pigs, cows, sheep, and more. Mom and Pop small businesses offered their products, too. Art also played a big role. At The Art Hub, more than 400 pieces of art were featured, created by California visual artists.
And of course, the variety of food offered at the fair extended beyond classics like corn dogs and turkey legs, embracing a variety of new vendors such as Lil Hottie Donuts mini donuts dessert, served with Gunther's ice cream and syrup; stuffed churros from Mely's, Mexican food from Alicia's Mexican Kitchen, Los Regios, and Benito's Tacos, a fresh take on a classic sweet at Cotton Candy Flower, and Flavor Fusion Boba Tea. The fair offered a Food Festival Pass for $34, that included four tickets redeemable for food selections entered in the Food Festival competition, separately valued at $48. Some included dishes were hot Cheetos nachos, Greek fries, a lavender matcha drink, fruity pebble funnel cake, and peace cobbler cheesecake.
Food fest competition winners included Country Fair Cinnamon Rolls, voted Best of Show for the third straight year with its Carmel Apple Cinnamon Roll Sundae. Benito's Tacos won Best Savory and Best in the Division with their Quesabirria Tacos.
The fair's media director, Darla Givens, noted that the crowds came out despite record high temperatures this year. “…you can't control the weather,” she said, but attested that regardless of temps, next year's fair will mark 170 years, and feature more new attractions and a healthy dose of nostalgia as well. “We might do throwback exhibits…We haven't started planning for 2024 yet.”
Among the popular attractions this year were Lucha Extreme Wrestling, which fused Lucha Libre and American-style wrestling; and a daily trivia challenge held at the Save Mart California Kitchen Cooking Theater, in which teams of four competed to answer questions about California produce. A dog show and an FMX performance were also well-attended. Gaming competitions for the Bear Cup Esports Tournament were another strong draw for the fair. Thoroughbred horse racing was offered at the Miller Light Racetrack Grandstand, and despite cancellation on several days due to heat, remained a big attraction.
Wizard's Challenge offered up a fantasy landscape of dragons and wizards, while Save Our Water Landscaping presented information on efficient water usage and gardens through a variety of experiences. Making a triumphant return were a Candy Maze experience with 14 photo op stations, and a curated cannabis show, California Cannabis, that included a grow chamber and informative discussions for those 21 and up. There was a Made in California Fashion Fair, and a celebration of Out at the Fair that included Drag Queen Bingo.
Also big fair hits: both a monster truck event and Demolition Derby, with tickets for each priced at $10; and the Best of California Brewfest, offering plentiful samples of craft brew award winners served to those with $45-50 admission tickets.
Concerts were free with a fair admission ticket, but reserved seating was also available for $25. Among the big-name acts were LeAnn Rimes, Boyz II Men, Fitz and the Tantrums, Third Eye Blind, Ashanti, the Gin Blossoms, Kool & The Gang, and Trace Adkins among others. Adkins performed on the fair's final day.